For one moment, the traffic stood still. The Metro rails paused to catch their breath and the pedestrians scurried about. But the Sun continued, relentlessly, its daily parade with great fanfare in its lovely orange attire…
Omwati, at work, her head held high
Sometimes I wonder why people take the trouble of dropping everything to go mountain climbing. Isn’t life itself a big mountain?
Completely oblivious and far removed from the debates raging all over the country these days over nationalism, reservations, and hidden agendas of RSS and BJP, Omwati, a middle-aged, semi-literate woman stands everyday near the Uttam Nagar red light with a cart-load of vegetables and fruits along with hundreds of other sellers; from morning till evening, they keep calling out and shouting to attract the attention of the passersby and coax them to buy from them.
Working in an open place like Uttam Nagar has a lot of risks, but she still carries on. The profit she earns by selling fruits and vegetables helps her in supporting her family. Her courage, her quiet determination, and the dignity with which she carries herself are really admirable.
She hails from UP and came to Delhi as a young bride. Her husband was an auto-rickshaw driver during those blissful early years. But a couple of years later, he fell sick, according to her. He doesn’t work anymore and stays at home. She has been selling fruits and vegetables at Uttam Nagar for almost 25 years now. They live in Budh Vihar, Rohini, and have 3 sons; the eldest is doing an ITI course, the middle one is doing a computer course, and the youngest one is in 10th class in school. She is the only earning member of her family.
Her day begins with a visit to Azadpur Mandi early in the morning. She buys her wares from there and brings them to Uttam Nagar in an auto-rickshaw. She reaches here around 12 PM and begins work right away. The cart that she uses is her own now along with the weighing machine. Maximum sales happen in the evening when most of the passersby are on their way home after work. She leaves for the day in the night, around 9:30 PM, and goes home in a DTC bus.
Perhaps you will ask what makes Omwati special, apart from being a female seller in a male-dominated market. I have been purchasing my fruits and veggies from this market for the last 16 years and I find Omwati always so refreshingly different from the other loud and aggressive sellers. She is soft-spoken and well-mannered and treats her regular customers with great respect. The rates she quotes are generally the most reasonable and when things are not of good quality, she is pretty honest about it. It’s really amazing to see that though she is semi-literate, she knows by instinct that the most important thing in marketing is that customers will return to you only if you give them recognition and make them feel important.
Uttam Nagar red light junction is adjacent to both the Uttam Nagar East Metro Station and the Uttam Nagar bus terminal in West Delhi. Because of such a huge turnover of people and vehicles through this place, it provides a lot of opportunities to petty sellers like Omwati. Even the buyers love to buy from here because of the low prices, probably the most reasonable you can find in Delhi. But for the same reasons, this place remains in a perpetually chaotic state and continues to be a big nightmare for the Traffic Police. Road accidents are quite frequent.
Several attempts were made in the past by the Police to get rid of these petty sellers. They were, after all, illegally encroaching on public property and turning into a big nuisance with each one jostling for space and fighting with each other and, sometimes, with the customers as well. Nearly all of them keep their carts and sacks of goods here and some remain behind to keep a constant guard on them. But the long arm of law could not succeed and the market continues to survive.
This has a lot to do, I think, with the vested interests too. I have often heard these sellers grumble about the huge amount of money they are compelled to pay to be able to stand here and sell.
Not to forget, there’s vote bank politics also. No government likes to be perceived by the general public as a ruthless dictator. All the open spaces are being converted into malls and government earns huge taxes from them. Often one hears of scams with public money going into private pockets. Where then can the ordinary sellers with hand-to-mouth existence go to? We are a free, democratic country, after all. We do have a right to our free, open spaces, don’t we? We needn’t pay for everything we need to live – water, the air we breathe, land to stand on – these are God-gifted and everyone has a right to them.
Uttam Nagar market is, in fact, like shifting sands with a constantly changing law and order situation.
Sometimes the Police suddenly become hyperactive and extremely brutal. They come out with lathis and start raining blows on the gas lamps on the carts. I was a shocked witness to this scene once while buying a kilo of oranges. But I was more shocked when I saw that the sellers, without uttering a word of protest, just picked up the handles of their carts and immediately began making a hasty retreat. The money I was supposed to pay to that hapless seller for oranges on that ill-fated evening was already in my hands, thank God, and I thrust it into his desperate hands just before he ran away.
And sometimes, all of a sudden, the place is empty and desolate. Then a couple of days later, the carts return, this time with a vengeance, and in much greater numbers!
I asked Omwati the other day if she faced these problems. She told me that she does and in such situations, she just plays it safe and stays away from the traffic. And then in the night, like snakes, petty criminals, pimps, drunkards, and drug addicts also come out and move around, looking for a prey. Well, these are just occupational hazards that she shrugs off as unavoidable.
Wish you a better future ahead, Omwati, and I hope God makes your life easier in the coming years…
Here are some more pics of her.